Fiction / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

Not Yet Pekak

by Ikmaliah Idi

Whenever Firwan needed his mother, he would first look in the kitchen of their four-room HDB flat. She was always there—peeling onions, washing dishes, arranging cutlery, wiping the insides of their refrigerator clean. There was always a chore to do even though none of them required immediate attention. Sometimes, the chore was unnecessary like cooking rice over the stove instead of using their electric rice-cooker. Some days, the chore was back-breaking like hanging laundry on bamboo poles before flinging the poles out the window to dry. Most Singaporeans make do with the help of tropical climate—a drying machine was a luxury only a handful can afford. While it frustrates Firwan, his mother was used to life without machines and electrical appliances. Through her calloused palms and hunched shoulders, his mother's domestic routines were pillars to her matrimony. The kitchen was her comfort zone, but with her deteriorating health, her safety was uncertain. Firwan worried that she may not sense danger until it's too late. 

"Ibu," Firwan called from the entrance of the kitchen. He caught a whiff of lavender floor detergent and noticed the slippery brown tiles. The kettle on the stove whistled throughout their home in Aljunied.

His mother, Aisyah, stood by the window with a metal plate of stale rice in her hand. She balanced the plate between the window sill and the bamboo poles that hung outside the window. A pigeon swooped towards the plate and pecked at the stale rice. The kettle whistled behind her. She turned away from the window, noticed Firwan and walked towards the kettle on the stove.

Firwan took two long strides, extended his right arm and turned off the stove before his mother could.

"What do you need?" Aisyah asked.

Firwan tugged at his earlobe and gestured with his palm facing the sky.

Aisyah shrugged. She took a white ceramic cup from the drying rack above the sink. 

Firwan sighed. His mother could no longer hear in her left ear. The doctor had prescribed a hearing aid to help with her sudden hearing loss.

Aisyah opened a drawer and pulled out a teabag from a clear, glass canister. "That thing—very gatal," she said as she made her cup of tea. She poured hot water, dropped the teabag in and added two teaspoons of sugar.

"Gatal? Which part?" Firwan asked. He shook his head in disbelief. Everything that threatened her comfort was always itchy. Adjust her furniture—itchy hand. Change the channel—itchy finger. Move too much—itchy backside. Retaliate—itchy mouth. Desire, lust, sex, love—itchy down there.

Aisyah stirred her cup of tea loudly. She scooped a small portion with the teaspoon and took a sip.

Firwan moved close to his mother and aligned his mouth to her right ear. "Ibu."

Aisyah turned and stared at him. "I'm not pekak—not yet. I can hear. Just—not my left ear."

"Where is it?" Firwan asked. His mother used to accuse him of being deaf whenever he missed her phone call or when the TV was too loud or when he blatantly ignored her. Now, the tables have turned.

Aisyah pulled the drawer, took her hearing aid out and placed it on the countertop. She took her cup of hot tea and moved to the window to watch the pigeons. Four pigeons perched on the rim of the plate. They cooed and rolled their necks. Occasionally, they each looked up and held eye contact, as if acknowledging their appreciation for the platter that was served.

"Ibu," Firwan raised his voice loud enough for his mother to hear. "Have you thought about it?"


Firwan clicked his tongue. He took the hearing aid to his mother. "Put it on."

Aisyah sipped her tea.

"Please," Firwan begged.

"Say what you need to say. I'm not pekak."

Firwan pushed back his mother's hair to expose her left ear. He fixed the hearing aid gently, switched it on and adjusted the volume. "Better?" he asked as he adjusted her hair to hide the skin-coloured hearing aid.

Aisyah placed her palm over her left ear—ready to pull it out.

Firwan moved his mother's hand away. "After the wedding, I'll be moving out."

"I know."

"Come stay with us."

"This is my house."

"You're not well."

"Says who?"

"If anything happens—how?"

"I will call you."

"You can't even hear."

"This is my house."

"I am your son."

"I am your mother."

"You're my responsibility."



"My left ear—pekak. My body—still works."

"That's not what I meant."

Aisyah gulped the rest of her tea and placed the cup in the sink. She then turned to shoo away a pigeon and grab the plate of stale rice from outside the window. She placed the plate on an empty stove top, next to the kettle. "Don't throw. Keep for tomorrow. Close the window. Maghrib."

"What for? I don't think setan enters through a window." Firwan rolled his eyes as he pulled the window close. Malay mothers and their superstitions—as if evil spirits really do seek refuge in our home when the sun sets.

"Are you the setan?" Aisyah glared at Firwan. She took off her hearing aid and placed it back in the drawer.

"Ibu," Firwan called after his mother as she walked out of the kitchen. Gatal, pekak, setan—Malay mothers were such allegorical poets. Their nouns and adjectives delicately moulded to fit into any disciplinary context and like most poets, Malay mothers were overly sensitive. Firwan took the hearing aid from the drawer and headed for his mother's bedroom.

Aisyah sat on her bed and meddled with her grey, rectangular, analog radio. A distorted and faint melody of the adhzan drifted through the speaker.

Firwan sat next to his mother. He placed the hearing aid in her palm.

"I'm not pekak. It's the radio's antenna."

"You always said I was pekak," Firwan said.

"You are. Pekak badak."

"Are rhinoceroses really deaf, though?"

Aisyah shrugged. She sighed dramatically.

"I'm here—but I cannot hear."

"But you're not pekak yet, right?"

Aisyah laughed. "It's going to get worst. When I really cannot hear anymore, it's going to be lonely."


"It's true. You think the army made you a man? Wait till I'm gone. Loneliness will force you to grow up."

"Move in with us, please. Let's sell this house."

"Santa clause?"

"Sell this house." Firwan stared at his mother. 


"Ibu," Firwan hid his face behind his palm. "God, please," he mumbled.

"I heard you." Aisyah smacked Firwan's arm. "I'm not yet pekak."

"So sell this house?"

"Sometimes, I can still hear your Bapak coming home from work. I hear him taking off his watch, unbuckling his belt—" Aisyah glanced at the empty side of the bed.


"He was so sad when his bird escaped from its cage. Every day, he stood by the window and whistled—calling out for his beloved pet."

"When I move out, are you going to whistle for me—when you need me?"

"He'd set aside some rice by the window hoping for his Colok to come back."

Firwan sighed. His mother ignored his attempt to steer her away from nostalgia. "Colok's gone. So is Bapak."

"Colok will come back. As long as I put the rice out. One day, he will find his way home."

"So, we're not selling this house because Colok might come back?"

"Do you remember? I used to send you out to get your Bapak home. He'd spent his Saturdays sitting at that coffeeshop with his buddies and their birds."

"And he'd make me carry his birdcage home."

"It's so quiet without—"

"Me?" Firwan smiled and held his mother's gaze.

Aisyah placed her palms on Firwan's jawline. She held his face and smiled faintly.

Firwan knew that his mother struggled with life without his father. Having a husband and talking to him every day was like digging a well of nostalgia and now that he's dead, all she wants to do is jump into that well. "If you move and live with me, it won't be quiet."

"Have you asked Sarah?"

"What for?"

"You're going to build a life together. You cannot make decisions without her."

"You're my mother. She'll understand."

"It doesn't work like that."

"So troublesome."

"You're not even married yet."

"How did you and Bapak do it—stay married for so long?"

"Love." Aisyah sniffed. A stream of tears gathered under her eye. "But when the magic wears off, it's effort. And choice. You must put in effort and every day when you wake up, you must choose each other."

"If Bapak was here, I'm sure he'd say something ridiculous."

"He'd tell you that the secret is happy wife, happy life."

"No. I think he'd say, hungry wife, angry wife."

Aisyah laughed. "Yes, that man knew all the right food for all of his offences."

"Paddlepop ice-creams were my favourite."

"For when he buys the wrong thing from the market."

"And you'd make him go back to the market.

"Of course. If not, I cannot finish my cooking. All the things that I've blended will go to waste."

"He'd come back and ask you to eat the ice-cream first."

"To cool me down. He said if I cook when I'm angry, the food won't taste nice." Aisyah tugged the hem of her sleeve and dabbed her eyes.

"Ibu," Firwan called out as he massaged his mother's calf gently. "Why don't you want to move—live with Sarah and me?"

"You all, newlyweds, you need your privacy."

"But your safety—"

"It's not easy living with a mother-in-law. Sarah might not like it."

"Bapak would have wanted you to move. He would have wanted me to take care of you."

"This is our house. We moved in with nothing. Took us three years to furnish this place. I cannot—my heart cannot bear to part with this home that we built."

Firwan squeezed his mother's arm and got up. A year since his father's death, but it was too soon to force his mother to let go. He knew that she was afraid of forgetting her husband. "Think about it, OK?"

Aisyah looked at her son and shook her head.

"If the kettle had boiled over just now, you could've been hurt." Firwan bent and kissed his mother's forehead.

"You don't know—"

"I know," Firwan said, as he walked out of his mother's room.

"Are you going to sleep?" Aisyah asked.

"No, I want to watch the TV."

Aisyah sighed. "I can't sleep." She got up from her bed and followed Firwan to the living room.

Firwan sat on their couch and switched on the television. His mother sat next to him in silence as they watched the screen flicker through different scenes.

"Wan," Aisyah said. "Take me to the market tomorrow."



Firwan parked his car at the parking lot near Geylang Serai Market, sat in his car and waited for his mother to return from the wet market nearby. She was equipped with her red market trolley to help with her purchases. An hour went by. He got out of his car and leant against the silver door frame.

Aisyah returned with a full load in her trolley. She bought one kilogram of chicken, half a kilogram of big, red onions, lemongrass, coconut milk, cili padi, ginger, turmeric, turmeric leaves and tamarind. Firwan had requested chicken cooked in lemak cili padi. He loved the way she made her dish. The thick, yellow gravy, smooth texture of coconut milk and aroma of lemongrass and ginger—lemak cili padi was his comfort food.

Firwan saw his mother entering the parking lot. He waved to her and walked to the back of his car. As he opened the car boot, he heard a loud honk, vehicle wheels screeching and a thud. His hands froze in mid-air. He peeked out from behind the car boot and saw his mother on the ground. A black seven-seater car was just a hairline behind his mother and her red market trolley toppled with groceries spilling out. He ran towards his mother.

The driver, a bespectacled, middle-age man got out from behind his steering wheel. "Sorry, sorry, my steering wheel locked. I lost control. Makcik, are you OK?"

Aisyah sighed and attempted to get up.

"Ibu," Firwan yelled. He got on his knees and stopped his mother from getting up. "Are you OK? What happened?"

"Accident." Aisyah held onto Firwan's shoulders and got up.

"Your mother?" the man asked.


"Sorry, sorry, my steering wheel locked when I was making a turn."

Firwan picked up the trolley and the groceries. "Ibu, are you OK?"

"Makcik, do you need an ambulance?" the man asked.

Aisyah clicked her tongue. "No need. I'm OK."

"Sorry, makcik. I tried to warn you. I honked." The man scrambled and pulled out his name card from his wallet. "This is my name card. Send me your hospital bill."

Firwan reached out to take it.

"No need." Aisyah stopped Firwan. "It's my fault." Aisyah tucked her hair behind her left ear—no hearing aid.

Firwan looked at his mother and sighed.

"This side is going—" Aisyah tapped at her right ear.

"Sorry, uncle," Firwan apologised to the man. "My mother cannot hear in her left ear."

"And now the right side, too." Aisyah looked at Firwan and shook her head.

"At least, take my name card. Go to the doctor. Check if there's any internal injury." The man gave Aisyah his name card. "Let me pay for your check-up."

Aisyah took the name card and let her arm fall weakly to her side. "Thank you." She held Firwan's arm and gestured for him to go. She winced a little. Her palms were grazed from trying to break her fall.

"Are you bleeding?" Firwan asked. He scrunched his eyebrows and grabbed his mother's palm.

"It's nothing. Just a scratch. Let's go."

"Makcik, are you sure?" The man lingered, unsure if the accident was his mistake.

"Yes. Don't worry, it was my fault." Aisyah smiled at the man.

Firwan took the trolley and pushed it away. His mother held his arm tightly. He guided his mother to the car and walked at her pace. As soon as they arrive at the car, he opened the front passenger door and helped his mother with her seatbelt. He then unloaded her groceries into the car boot.

Firwan drove in silence. Their journey home was as quiet as the day they buried his father—a mutual need for space between his mother and him and an understanding that change was about to happen.

"Wan," Aisyah whispered, breaking the silence. "I'm not ready," she sniffed.

Firwan stopped at a red light. He looked at his mother and held her hand.

"I lost your Bapak. I'm losing my hearing. I cannot lose the house."

"Ibu," Firwan squeezed his mother's hand. The traffic light turned green and he drove off again. There were no words to comfort his mother, but he knew what his father would have done. His father always addressed his mother's trauma, anger, pain and sadness immediately and heading home right after his mother's minor accident would be terrible. He turned into the parking lot at Haig Road Market & Food Centre.

"Why are we here?" Aisyah asked.

"To eat ice kacang."

Aisyah smiled.

Firwan held his mother's hand as they made their way to the hawker centre. They found the dessert stall and sat at an empty table nearby.

A man in blue t-shirt and checkered pants approached them. A white towel rested on his shoulder. "Drinks?" he asked.

"Later," Firwan said as he held up his palm.

The man walked away.

Firwan got up and headed to the stall. "Uncle, two ice kacang."

A bony old man stood behind the counter. "Which table?"

Firwan pointed to where his mother was seated and paid for his desserts. He made his way back to his mother.

"Let me see your palm." Firwan grabbed his mother's wrist.

Aisyah pulled away. "It's nothing."

"No pain?"

Aisyah shook her head.

The bony old man arrived with two purple bowls of ice kacang. He placed the mountain of finely shaved ice with colourful flavours on the table.

"Thank you, Uncle." Firwan smiled at the old man.

"Wan, can you ask Sarah to come by our home tonight?" Aisyah asked meekly.

"What for?"

"I'm going to cook ayam lemak cili padi."

"You don't have to cook today."

"She can have dinner with us."

"We need to go to the doctor first."

"Just scratches and bruise. I don't need the doctor."

"Then don't cook."

"I want to ask Sarah if she's OK with me living with you."

Firwan smiled.

"I couldn't hear the man honking at me. Who knows what else I can't hear tomorrow."

"Maybe if you stop acting like a champion and wear your hearing aid—" Firwan shrugged.

Aisyah ate her dessert in silence.

"If I knew that an accident would change your mind," Firwan teased his mother. "I'd—"

"You'd have what? Pushed me on to the road?"


"My goodness. What did I do to deserve a son like you?"

Firwan laughed. His mother pretends to be strong for him and for her to crumble and give in meant a lot to him. She was finally letting him care for her the way she always did for him and his father. The army did not make him a man—his mother did.

ImageIkmaliah Idi is a creative who relies on coffee to function. A producer, writer and photographer, she cares about language and aesthetic very much. She is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at LASALLE College of the Arts.
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